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Samples - Searching for the legendary snow leopard

[Published 22 April 2017, NRC Handelsblad, Dutch national newspaper, >200,000 subscriptions, www.nrc.nl]

For a Dutch online version with photos, click here.

 

Searching for the legendary snow leopard

 

In order to protect snow leopards, you need to know where they are. NRC joined a monitoring team in the Russian Altai Mountains in search of this rare and elusive animal.


By Nienke Beintema

 

Only one animal could have made these tracks. Round prints in the shallow snow, at least six inches in diameter. A body length of about four feet, given the distance between the prints. A deliberate pace, straight uphill. Over here, it stopped to scratch a rock – just look at those five parallel marks, covering the width of a human hand! – and over there it paused to leave some big grey cat droppings.

It really walked right here, and less than a day ago. We’re closing in on the animal that we’re looking for: the legendary snow leopard.

Valéry Orgunov stands up and brushes the snow off his knees. His expert’s eyes scan the surrounding slopes. He points: the animal must have come from there, through that pass across the valley. We see a sloping trail, a snowy white line on the black mountain side. The trail has been shaped by countless hooves of Siberian ibex and wild mountain sheep. Predators also use these trails, so that is where we’ll place a wildlife camera. The spot where we’re standing now is not suitable, for it will soon be inundated by a fierce meltwater river.

Inhospitable
It's late February and freezing cold in the Russian part of the Altai Mountains. We are in Sailugemsky National Park, close to the border with Mongolia, at an altitude of almost 10,000 feet. Even in the daytime, the temperature may drop to minus 30 degrees centigrade. Today we are lucky: it's only minus 20 and the wind, which usually roars and whistles, is now calm. This is the time of year to look for snow leopards: now you can see their tracks in the snow and drive a jeep across frozen rivers to penetrate deeper into the mountains.

The snow leopard is one of the most endangered species in the world. Only four to six thousand individuals remain in the wild. The margin of uncertainty is considerable, because counting snow leopards is extremely difficult. They live in inhospitable terrain, over a vast area, and are notoriously shy. Local herders and hunters know they are around because they find their tracks and remains of their prey - but hardly anyone ever gets to see one. ‘The ghost of the mountains’, is what local people call the snow leopard. It plays an important role in local myths and religion – a mix of Buddhism and shamanism.

The snow leopard lives high in the mountains in Central Asia, from Nepal to the Altai Mountains. The Russian part of these mountains, our current location, is the northernmost tip of its range. An estimated fifty to seventy snow leopards live in this area, but they have never been counted. That is why the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) is organizing a large-scale snow leopard census in Russia this year. Our expedition in the Altai Republic is part of it. Other teams are covering the mountains of the neighboring republics of Tuva and Buryatia.

Working fast to keep ourselves warm, we take pictures of the tracks of our snow leopard and collect its droppings for genetic analysis. Biologists in Moscow are developing a database of snow leopard DNA; genetic material in droppings reveals the identity and gender of the animal, and its relatedness to other animals in the area. This information helps scientists map and understand the population dynamics.

It's getting late. The wind is picking up and a dark blanket of clouds is entering our valley. We decide to head back to the jeep, walking quickly through the frozen landscape, balancing across the icy and rocky stream bed. In the shelter of the jeep, a sturdy Soviet model, we warm our hands on cups of hot sweet tea. We eat apple slices, sheep sausages and chocolate, all partly frozen.

And then we return to the field station where we are staying: a log cabin at the edge of the National Park. It’s a bumpy few-hour drive across boulders and irregular ice in breathtaking mountain scenery. We pass herds of half-wild yaks, steep cliffs with small groups of red-billed choughs that are riding the air currents – making their chuckling sounds and tumbling through the air – and a single wooden hut with a corrugated roof and smoke spiraling from the chimney. Here, in one of the most inhospitable places in the world, live shepherds who herd their sheep year-round through the dry landscape.

Poachers
Back at the field station we enjoy a spicy soup made of barley and mutton. Vodka is now on the table. Tatyana Ivanitskaya, of the WWF office Altai-Sayan, explains why it is so important to study snow leopards. Over the past two decades, she notes, their numbers have decreased significantly – but no one knows exactly how much. “If you don’t know where the animals live and what their conservation status is, you cannot protect them,” she says.

The threats are diverse, Ivanitskaya explains. The common underlying cause is poverty. In many places snow leopards are poached for their beautiful fur and for their bones and teeth, which are sold to China as traditional medicines. In Tuva, shepherds sometimes kill snow leopards to protect their sheep. These shepherds are living relatively high in the mountains, in snow leopard habitat, and the big cats sometimes sneak into the villages at night to steal sheep.

In the Altai Republic there is another threat. Due to hunting and poaching, snow leopard prey – deer, sheep and ibex – is becoming rare. Moreover, snow leopards fall victim to snares and traps that are intended for other animals, such as musk deer. These poaching instruments are in fact prohibited, but law enforcement is difficult in this wild and inaccessible place. In addition there is corruption. Rangers may occasionally take bribes. Also, they are not keen to put their own lives at risk when catching poachers red-handed. After all, their extreme poverty makes many poachers desperate.

Marking its territory
After dinner in the cabin, we drink boiling hot instant coffee, sitting around an enormous stone woodstove that also serves to cook food on. Outside, the wind is howling under a perfectly clear Milky Way. Whenever someone opens the door, a whirlwind of fine snow comes in, settling and quickly melting on the rough wooden floor.

“In some places in Altai we have used wildlife cameras for some years now”, says Ivanitskaya, “which has given us a fairly good idea of ​​how many individuals there are locally.” The cameras are hidden along animal trails and automatically take pictures, and some of them even video footage, when an animal walks past. “The interesting thing is”, says Ivanitskaya, “that you can identify individual snow leopards based of the spotting pattern of their fur. It's as unique as a fingerprint.”

Biologist Denis Malikov, scientific director of Sailugemsky National Park, uses his laptop to show some examples. These are intriguing images of animals that pass undisturbed, quite close to the camera. Many Siberian ibex. A few wild mountain sheep with huge curled horns. An Altai grouse, as big as a turkey. A brown bear. A wolf, with an elegant pace. And then – a breathtaking image: a snow leopard at dusk. The big cat has a strikingly long and bushy tail and moves gracefully between the boulders. It stops, sniffs, and rubs its head high against a rock, standing on his hind legs. “It’s marking its territory”, says Malikov. “A male, judging by the sturdy head. In fact we regularly see this individual on this camera.”

The animal glances straight into the lens. Heavy eyebrows, big pale eyes with almost round pupils. Then it turns its back to the rock, lifts its tail up high and sprays a stream of urine backwards against the rock. That’s that: area claimed. Confidently, the animal moves out of sight. Malikov ponders the footage silently for a moment, even though he has seen these images before. Has he ever seen a snow leopard in real life? “Never. Oh, I wish I had.”

He is not the only one. In our company of two biologists and eight local rangers there is only one person who ever had that luck: our guide Orgunov.

Braiding river
The following day the weather is clear and the wind is cold and fierce. We are back on the road with Orgunov. He was born and raised here. His weathered face looks older than his forty years. For most of his life he has been a hunter by profession. A wolf hunter. For each killed wolf, the government pays hunters a premium, because wolves kill many domestic sheep in this area. Sheep are an easy prey for the wolves – much easier than the wild ungulates. Orgunov certainly knows that hunting wolves doesn’t help: the void any dead wolf leaves behind is quickly filled again by migration and larger litter sizes. But wolves are traditionally the enemy in this region. Whoever kills one is a hero.

Now Orgunov has a job as a guide for the National Park. Yet he cannot quite forget about wolf hunting. The evidence of his passion has been lying frozen stiff in the parking lot of the field station for a few days now: three beautiful grey wolves, siblings from the same pack. They represent a month’s salary for Orgunov, who has to feed three children.

“I know every mountain ridge here like the five fingers of my hand,” he says. Not once, but twice did he manage to spot a snow leopard. Has he poached them too? “No, no, absolutely not!” he says firmly.

Here we will start our climb, Orgunov indicates. We admire the red-brown cliffs towering high above us, beautifully lit by the sun. It’s a lot colder than yesterday and the wind is howling around the rocks. Yet everywhere around us we hear the chitter-chatter of grey buntings. A bearded vulture is soaring by, looking for dead snacks.

We zigzag up the steep slope, past a huge nest of a steppe eagle. The cold, thin air bites into in our lungs and nostrils. Soon, my body feels comfortably warm, but my fingers and cheeks are numb. A majestic view unfolds, with the frozen, braiding river deep below us, reflecting the sunlight like silver, and an endless décor of peaks and valleys all around.

After an hour of climbing, we reach the top of the ridge. Here you can lean into the wind. Orgunov and Malikov walk back and forth, searching for the best place to install the wildlife camera. This must be the spot: a ledge close to the abyss. They take half an hour to find just the right positioning of the camera – not too high, not too low, not against the sun. They firmly embed the camera in a pile of rocks, which hides it from view and allows it to remain stable for a few weeks. And then we descend quickly. It is much too cold to linger.

Potential habitat
But how do you cover an area the size of France and Germany combined, just with wildlife cameras? “It is not perfect,” says Alexander Karnaukhov of the WWF office Altai-Sayan, coordinator of this census. He specializes in research on rare animals. “But we can map the known populations quite accurately,” he says, “using wildlife cameras and genetic analysis of the feces.”

The team also searches all other potential snow leopard habitats. Specially developed software shows them where those areas are, based on geography and factors such as temperature, vegetation and snow depth. There’s no need to search every square kilometer of these areas, he stresses. An expert can accurately assess where a snow leopard has his favorite trails: right on the mountain ridges. And thus 32 cameras are sufficient to cover this entire national park, he says. A total of 180 will cover all of the Russian habitats. Karnaukhov: “We hope to introduce this approach in other snow leopard countries as well.”

During the next three days we install another wildlife camera, in a new location, and we replace batteries and memory cards of two previously installed cameras. Meanwhile, we record the presence of ibex and wild mountain sheep. Every night we eagerly check the ‘harvest’ on the memory cards. Many false alarms: a steppe polecat, a hare, a waving piece of grass. But then! A brilliant portrait of a snow leopard in the sun. The animal is photographed from the side, on a mountain pass, like a king overlooking his kingdom. A male that the biologists had not seen before. There are also several images of leopards in the twilight.

Umbrella species
Not bad for just one week; the biologists are satisfied. But what an impressive amount of hard work it takes to study these animals. Are those fifty to seventy Russian snow leopards really worth it? Dmitry Burenko, development director at WWF in Moscow, has no doubt. “We focus on the snow leopard because it is a so-called umbrella species,” he says. “A top predator that can only be protected by conserving the whole area, with all of its species. The entire ecosystem benefits – and also the people. It really isn’t just about this one species.”

In the end, emphasizes Burenko, it comes down to poverty alleviation and education. “We are working with local people to give them an alternative source of income,” he says, “for example from tourism. But also by providing them with jobs in nature conservation.” Our guide Orgunov is one example. In Tuva, hunters who used to kill snow leopards are now paid to install and monitor wildlife cameras. If they manage to capture a snow leopard on camera, they get a bonus – plus an extra bonus if ‘their’ animal is still alive at the end of the year. This approach is quite successful. “Poachers really don’t want to kill snow leopards,” says Burenko. “They just want to support their families.”

The projects has many elements of development work, he says. What’s different is the approach with wildlife cameras – and in particular the flagship species: a charismatic big cat. “Of course,” laughs Burenko. “That’s what draws people in. Would you have come all this way for a story about poverty?”

 

About this article

This first Russian snow leopard census is organized by WWF Russia, with support from WWF Netherlands. The author of this article joined the team for a week, by invitation from WWF Russia, which funded her travel from Moscow to Altai and local living costs.

 

 

Nienke Beintema | www.nienkebeintema.nl | info@nienkebeintema.nl | +31 (0) 6 1441 1741


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